Sunday, August 16, 2009

Commander Zartman's Last Stand on the Western Sahara

Why the Maghreb Matters: Threats, Opportunities, & Options for Effective US Engagement in North Africa has been sitting on my desk for a few months now. This policy paper released in March by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and the Conflict Management Program (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins is worth a look, if only because of the all-star cast that has chosen to affix their names to such a thoroughly flawed study. Panel Members on the North Africa Policy Paper Project behind the report include such luminaries as Secretary Madeleine Albright, General Wesley Clark, and Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, and notable academics Chester Crocker from Georgetown, John Entelis from Fordham, and I. William Zartman from Johns Hopkins (Co-Chair). While one would think that this star power might guarantee a certain level of honesty and rigor in the study, Why the Maghreb Matters is a joke, and a very bad one at that.

Initially, my intention was to write a lengthy post about all that is wrong with this study, but alas as so often happens several individuals and groups beat me to it with excellent reviews. So rather than bore you with a rehash, I’ll link you to the two that I found most illuminating: The Potomac-SAIS report on North Africa: Paid Analysis, Partisan Fear Mongering, Bad Policy by Jacob Mundy and Why the Facts Matter: A Response by the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union (UPES) to “Why the Maghreb Matters." Their revelations on the blatant dishonesty of the Potomac-SAIS work are truly damning.

While these two reviews are pretty comprehensive in their debunking of the Potomac-SAIS study, there is one part of the study that epitomizes its utter intellectual bankruptcy and which, as far as I can tell, nobody has commented on -- that is their incursion into comparative self-determination. On page 14 they site several examples of what they consider to be similar self-determination cases to that of the Western Sahara which back up and support their autonomy proposal. An examination of these examples reveals that they either have nothing at all to do with the Western Sahara or else serve as far better support for the Polisario point of view. Here is the section in question, with the highlights mine:

The people of the region must be given an opportunity for self-determination, which can take the form of autonomy (as occurred from Zanzibar to Aceh). That acceptance can be expressed in a referendum confirming the option offered. The process could begin with a formal endorsement by the interested Western states— US, UK, France, Spain—of the principle of autonomy, with a limited period of time for final negotiations to take place over its details. At the end of the upcoming fifth round of UN-sponsored negotiations between the parties, whatever its outcome, the US could pursue an effort among Security Council members to recognize autonomous status within Morocco and invite others to follow suit, much as was done for a similar option for Aceh, Cameroon, Biafra, and for a reverse option for Bosnia and for Kosovo.


Zanzibar? Their choice of Zanzibar is baffling. A British protectorate from 1890, Zanzibar was given full independence from Britain in 1963 after a 1961 election that formed the first post-protectorate government. In 1964, after a bloody revolution brought a leftist regime to power under Amani Karume, the Zanzibar government agreed to unite with newly-independent Tanganyika to form The United Republic or Tanzania under which Zanzibar had substantial autonomy. What is so strange about this choice of examples is that, since Zanzibar was granted independence BEFORE agreeing to join up with Tanganyika and accept autonomy, this is a far better argument for granting independence to the Western Sahara. Then if it turns out that the Saharawis really love the Moroccan crown as much as Rabat claims, they can always join up later with Morocco. Moroccahara has a good ring to it.


This is an interesting choice. Aceh’s claims to self-determination stem primarily from the territory’s marginal integration into the Netherlands East Indies. Jakarta’s brutal military rule and exploitation of the abundant natural resources of the territory have further complicated the matter. Nevertheless, Aceh was never designated a non-self-governing territory by the UN, and I am not aware of any country that does not recognize Aceh as an integral part of Indonesia. The study’s attempt to use the example of Aceh to justify their autonomy proposal for Western Sahara is perplexing on several counts. First, under international law the cases are totally different. Second, autonomy for Aceh -- from the granting of “special territory” status in 1959 with some autonomy in religious, educational and cultural matters to the autonomy granted after the 2004 tsunami – is very much a work in progress and there are real questions about the sustainability of the current status. Last but not least, the use of Aceh begs the question of why the authors chose to ignore the case of East Timor, which has far closer parallels to the Western Sahara than does Aceh. In case you hadn’t noticed, the non-self-governing East Timor got its referendum in 1999 and gained independence in 2002. Fears that the loss of East Timor would lead to an unraveling of Indonesia, a communist and/or fundamentalist takeover in Jakarta, and the end of the free world as we know it were apparently unfounded.


I admit my ignorance here of what this “reverse option” is. Why Bosnia is even mentioned is a mystery to me in that it is not autonomous and furthermore has a rather dubious independence given the threats of the Republika Srpska to secede.


One would think that Potomac-SAIS would have avoided mention of Kosovo like the plague. After all, it was the CANCELLATION of Kosovar autonomy by the Serbs in 1989 that in no small measure set in motion the events that led to Kosovo’s independence. If anything the Kosovo case is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of autonomy and thus I would think greatly strengthens the Polisario case.


I’m at a bit of a loss identifying exactly which part of Cameroonian history is being held up here to support the autonomy proposal. Is it the decision of the UN in 1961 to deny the British Cameroon real self-determination (in violation of the UN Charter) and to instead offer them a choice between inclusion in Nigeria or the Republic of Cameroon (the former French Cameroon)? Is it the decision of President Ahidjo in 1972 to unilaterally cancel the autonomy that the federated state of West Cameroon (the part of British Cameroon that chose to join the Republic of Cameroon) enjoyed after 1961? Or is it the clamoring of the anglophone Cameroonians for at least the last 20 years for a return of the autonomy they enjoyed until 1972? Whatever the case, none of this long sad history of denial of self-determination and cancellation of autonomy appears to offer much support for the Moroccan autonomy plan. Au contraire, autonomy in Cameroon comes across as a pretty dubious proposition. And actually the more I think about the original UN decision in 1961 to deny the British Cameroonians a vote on independence but to allow a choice between inclusion in Nigeria and Cameroon, the more I wonder whether the Potomac-SAIS people might be on to something. If they really think that independence is the end of the world, why not offer the Western Saharans a choice between inclusion in say Algeria, Mauritania, Spain, and Morocco. But then again I guess we all know who would come in last here.


Biafra is the classic case of secession. As much as Morocco likes to think of the Western Sahara as secession pure and simple, there is very little international support for this notion. The UN certainly doesn’t consider it secession, and the total lack of any recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory tells me that the international community is similarly skeptical.

As an aside, I can’t help but add that this bizarre collection of examples dredged up in support of Morocco’s autonomy proposal bears the unmistakable marks of Commander I. W. Zartman’s compromised scholarship on the Western Sahara. Commander Zartman, once again, is the co-chair of this whole Potomac-SAIS fiasco. Take a look, for instance, at these talking points from his presentation at a 2005 forum on self-determination and the Sahara hosted by the NGO Search for Common Ground:

What is the case of Western Sahara like and not like (in comparison to “similar” cases)?
It is not like East Timor -- Western Sahara was colonized 40 years ago and not 400.
It is not like Palestine -- It is not a separate nation.
It is not like Sudan -- Its habitants are not “separate” people (e.g. its habitants are of the same religion as Morocco)
It is not like Namibia -- It is not a trusteeship territory with the UN as an administrator.
It is like Catalonia (Spain) -- It is self-autonomous within a larger state.
It is like Aden (Yemen)
It is like Zanzibar (Tanzania)
Compared to “similar” cases, Western Sahara has a tiny population and little resources.

Western Sahara colonized 40 years ago? Not like East Timor? Like Catalonia? Didn’t Aden get INDEPENDENCE as the People's Republic of South Yemen in 1967, long before it united with North Yemen in 1990? I’ve already talked about Zanzibar. Do any of his examples make any sense?

The recommendations of the Potomac-SAIS report are based on bad history, bad facts, bad analysis, and, as I argue here, bad examples. With this level of honesty and scholarship from Commander Zartman and his cronies, it is no wonder the Obama administration is considering dumping Morocco and its autonomy plan.


  1. Hello, Chasly

    We are happy to read again your posts after this long absence. We really miss your excellent analysis. I would like to know your view point about the latest informal meets and Ross initiative.

  2. Oh my, you're back. Welcome!

  3. Hi Alle,

    Nice hearing from you. My last year has been hectic, and I hope to keep a more regular schedule on my WS stuff. And keep the great material coming on Maghreb Politics Review.